Afterword. Old Habits Die Hard or New Customs Follow Old Paths?

The sophisticated burial rites and customs presented above are obviously not unique to ancient Greece. The burial–coins, the wreaths, and the gold lamellae and epistomia, incised or unincised, are items ingeniously devised by humans to help them face the most terrifying fact of life. They attempt to solve practical problems and at the same time come to terms with the fear of death, as Plato aptly described it (Republic 330d–331a).
Two modern examples may suffice to accentuate the interpretative problems that other discourses about death raise.
First, suppose that archaeologists a thousand years from now excavate the crypt under Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, in which the Popes are buried, and suppose that they reopen Pope John-Paul’s II tomb. Under the inscribed marble slab is found a casket of oak-wood, inside which is a coffin of zinc, inside which is yet another coffin, this time of cypress-wood, engraved with a cross and an ‘M.’ In addition to the bones—the white silk veil over the face, the pontificals, and the bishop’s hat placed on the chest may not have survived the intervening years—the archaeologists discover inside the last coffin a small bag of various commemorative medals from the pontificate of the deceased, imprinted with dates, and sealed in a lead tube a parchment which briefly summarizes the life and papacy of John Paul II. [1] If these were the only pieces of evidence, attempts at interpreting them and placing them into some kind of context would certainly run wild. Why cypress, zinc, and oak? What of the medals or burial-coins? What of the written parchment and its biographical narrative, and why inside a lead tube?
And secondly, suppose that you were given and asked to write a commentary on the following poem/song of the American Indian Tewa tribe (produced by the music group Apurimac (1998) in Greece, and quoted in Modern Greek and English from the compact disc’s leaflet):
Πείτε του ήλιου να φανεί και να χαμογελάσει
να τραγουδήσουν τα πουλιά στα πράσινα λειβάδια
πείτε του ήλιου να φανεί και να μας αγκαλιάσει
όπως μας αγκαλιάζουνε του αργαλιού τα δώρα.
Μάνα Γη Μάνα Γη
Ουρανέ Πατέρα Ουρανέ
τα παιδιά σας είμαστε.
Το άσπρο φως του πρωϊνού ας είναι το στιμόνι
το κόκκινο του δειλινού ας είναι το υφάδι
και οι σταγόνες της βροχής τα ασημένια κρόσια
κι ύστερα όλα τα χρώματα απ᾽ το ουράνιο τόξο.
Won’t you tell the sun to rise and shine
for the birds to sing down at the prairies
and embrace us with his glorious light
just as we’re enwrapped in the warm loom’s gifts.
Mother Earth, o Mother
Father Sky, o Father
’tis your children calling you.
Let the white morning light be the shuttle
let the purple of the dusk be the woof
and the raindrops be the silver fringes
with all the colours of the rainbow.
This poem/song from the Tewa tribe is entitled, after its refrain, “Mother Earth.” Does this refrain, so strongly reminiscent of the new identity of the deceased in the B-texts, imply the presence of Orphics among the Tewa tribe, or are the Tewa influenced somehow by Bacchic-Orphic eschatological beliefs?
The questions asked in the two examples sound absurd, because they are not questions that the evidence permits to be asked. They ignore the context of the motifs, and the ideas and symbolism behind them. The ancient Greek incised lamellae and epistomia, the Tewa tribe’s song, and the Catholic burial ritual of Pope John Paul II eloquently illustrate distinct attitudes towards and conceptions of death. And yet, despite their distinct underlying ideology of death, the external manifestations in all three instances present points of contact, not because of influence, but simply because human beings react to death and try to understand it in ways that look much alike. The context of all three cases is not, cannot be, comparable: Greek mystery cults, American Indian ideology and beliefs, Christian dogma. Their objective, however, to remove the fear of death by referring to a common source for all humans and/or by promising a special status for humans after death, and their means to achieve this objective disclose similarities. Thus these three cases manifest a “cultural interaction and transformation of discourses” on death which do not depend on one another, nor do they need to. In different historical contexts and cultures, they articulate the continuities, discontinuities, and transformations that human discourses on death have experienced. [2]
Furthermore, these two deliberately extreme cases, the burial ritual of Pope John Paul II and the Tewa tribal song, also serve as a forceful caveat for the Greek case. In certain areas of Greece, customs of epistomia (nos. 18–25 above), death-coins, and wreaths are still evident; there are also verbal reminiscences in popular poetry and songs (δημοτικά τραγούδια), especially in the laments (μοιρολόγια) and in the Eastern Orthodox Requiem. The Byzantine and modern Greek practices and customs, when and if compared with analogous ones from antiquity, run the serious risk of being drawn into the unending and vehement debate on Greek cultural continuities and discontinuities from antiquity to the present; hence the question mark of this section’s title: either old habits die hard, or new customs instinctively follow old and time-honored paths, and new discourses are created. The Byzantine and modern Greek examples presented in nos. 18–25 above can be, and more often than not are, explained in terms of historical and cultural continuities or discontinuities with strong arguments for and against. This is an approach, however, which by definition leads to an impasse. It is far better to approach the Greek examples (ancient, Byzantine, and modern) as discourses on death in their own right, ones which utilize ritual patterns and poetic techniques, or “ritual poetics,” for their own distinctive discourse on death, regardless of the historical gaps (which cannot be filled in anyway). [3]
Nos. 18–20 above date from the first Byzantine period, nos. 21–23 from the middle Byzantine, and nos. 24–25 from the modern era (Figures 19–23 [pages 44–47, 49, 51]). They are clay fragments, incised or painted, and they all document death-related rituals and customs which address a practical need when preparing the body of the deceased for burial: how to close the mouth. And yet the solution devised is highly unusual and unexpected. (The usual and expected practice, which has been followed throughout history across the globe and continues to be followed today, is to bind shut the lower jaw; compare Figure 40 [page 90], and the section “Shape—Burial Context”).
Nikolaos Politis also notes that, in order to avert evil spirits, a tile or ostrakon incised or painted with a cross, pentacle, the inscription Ἰ(ησοῦ)ς Χ(ριστὸ)ς νικᾷ, or even with the name of the deceased (compare Figures 19–22 [pages 44–47, 49]) and 23 [page 51], dated to the first Byzantine period and 1990 respectively), is placed on the mouth of the deceased just before inhumation. [4] In Western Macedonia and Thrace, in particular, a coin called peratikion (“transporting-fee”) is placed on or inside the mouth when the body is prepared, either as a phylactery or, according to a popular song, as Charon-fare to transport the deceased across the river which divides the worlds of the living and the dead. [5] Coins may also be placed on the chest or in the pockets of the deceased’s clothing, and other gifts may be brought and placed in the coffin “for the long journey and to give them to those whom s/he meets,” as the usual explanation runs. [6] In Archangelos Rhodes, a quite different object is placed inside the mouth: a small seal used for the consecrated bread, incised with a cross and wrapped in a kerchief. [7]
These are elaborate ways of dealing with a practical need, which are subsequently invested with the appropriate symbolism. Eurydice Antzoulatou-Retsila has studied in detail the “proofs of memory” (τεκμήρια μνήμης) which mostly concern the living, specifically the practice of bringing to the deceased flowers, wreaths, and evergreen plants of various kinds, sometimes covering the entire coffin (except for the face) with them. These gradually became large wreaths with ribbons on which the names of the dedicants were painted. There is also one case from Kydonies in Asia Minor, in which people used to dedicate flowers βαρακωμένα, i.e., after moistening the flower, they glued extremely thin gold foil on its leaves. [8] It is tempting to associate this practice with the ancient stephanosis, but no one who dedicates a wreath to honor the deceased does so (nor, if they do, is the symbolism the same). The modern practice is invested with new meaning and is transformed in order to accommodate two realities: firstly, Christian teaching, in accordance with which the deceased is wreathed as was Christ or as would be a victor of the hardships of life who is now entering the true life in Christ; secondly and more importantly, the social need of the dedicant to express respect and gratitude and to exhibit these feelings publicly by physical and tangible means, sometimes to the point of creating a spectacle. Such a gesture may be a last attempt to communicate with the deceased, but at the same time it emphasizes life and especially the life of the dedicant.
From her comparative study of funeral practices, Margaret Alexiou has concluded that the similarities between ancient and modern Greek funerary practices—“survivals,” as she calls them—are impressive. [9] Although discrepancies between the official position of the Church and the attitude of people in the villages may have been a reality at least during the Protobyzantine period, it appears that under Ottoman occupation, the two traditions, the Christian and the pagan, became fused in Greece. Instead of a survival, however, this process points rather to a new discourse on death for whose synthesis various elements and motifs are appropriated and transformed, acquiring new meaning and symbolism. These motifs are common to humanity, especially to those groups which live in rural societies, and are not exclusively Greek. Ancient Greek laments and their modern counterpart, moirologia, reveal ‘a common tradition’ for the synthesis of these songs: their structure and morphology, the techniques, motifs, metaphors, and formulae employed suggest, according to Alexiou, the survival and transformation of beliefs kept alive from antiquity to the present day. [10] And yet these shared elements, constantly reworked in a creative manner and sometimes dynamically transformed, do not form “one common tradition,” as implied by Alexiou’s analysis of the evidence, but at least two ‘common traditions.’ If removed from their Greek context, they represent eschatological beliefs which may be encountered throughout the world—it is only for brevity’s sake that they have been referred to in the previous chapters as the Homeric view of death and the Orphic view of life after death.
Loring Danforth has commented extensively, from an anthropological perspective, on the death-related rituals he observed in a village in Western Macedonia. Although much has changed since his research trip in 1979 and much more is bound to change in the future, several key elements of the death-rituals nevertheless remain evident. Concentrating on all stages of the rites and rituals from the moment of death until the exhumation of the deceased’s bones, his approach reveals a discourse on death which appropriates and transforms motifs, metaphors, and powerful symbols from both the official Eastern Orthodox Requiem and orally transmitted popular songs, including laments (μοιρολόγια). As convincingly unveiled through Danforth’s words and encapsulated in Alexander Tsiaras’ extraordinary photographs of each stage of ritual, this discourse is an attempt “to mediate the opposition between life and death.” [11] Danforth studies these death-rituals as rites of passage. The exhumation-ritual, in particular, is a reversal of the burial-ritual and thus, according to Danforth, an attempted or imperfect resurrection or a partial victory over death (35–69). To an outside observer, the pile of bones in an ossuary may be testimony that death is irreversible, that the opposition between life and death cannot be resolved, and that the material world cannot be transcended. The exhumation-ritual, however, when it occurs (in some areas, only when another relative dies and the grave-plot is needed for the new burial) is the final arrangement of the dead on earth as far as the living are concerned. The relatives, especially the women, are released of all their weekly and monthly duties to the dead following the exhumation. In terms of Danforth’s rite-of-passage analysis, however, the exhumed deceased remains in a liminal state, in keeping with the Orthodox Church’s ritual and teachings that the resurrection of the dead will occur with the Second Coming of Christ. [12] Thus the Church prescribes Memorial Services up to three years after death, a period after which relatives are advised to remember their dead on special Saturdays dedicated by the Church to the souls of the dead (ψυχοσάββατα) and especially during the week before Easter, the Good Friday, and the Pascha-Saturday. It should be noted here that in some villages of Western Macedonia and in Kozani, the area’s capital city, the ceremony for Christ’s resurrection (Ἀνάσταση) is held at midnight not inside the Church, but in the city’s main cemetery.
Another mediation of this opposition discussed by Danforth is the singing of laments. [13] Their imagery and metaphors verbalize loss and bereavement by expressing them in ‘poetic’ terms and therefore creating a more ‘rationalized’ medium of communication between the living and the dead—an attempt which also fails, in that the opposition between life and death ultimately remains, even gaining added validity. The moirologia finalize loss and separation, but in the meantime the relatives grow exhausted and satisfied by the mourning process. Finally, according to Danforth, [14] religious and social modes of behavior enable the living to continue both their lives and their relationship with the dead, a relationship which, despite this elaborate discourse, in the end remains an open “wound that never heals” [15] and the exclusive prerogative of women.
These specific discourses created to come to grips with death are Greek, but the views on death and life after death, the Homeric and Orphic dichotomy, are not a uniquely Greek phenomenon. Furthermore, the opposition between life and death, between earth and the underworld, and between death and immortality—none of these is an issue that agonizes only Greeks. As Danforth has aptly put it in anthropological terms: [16]
The religious perspective that is generated by the performance of death rites can be maintained most easily at the level of subjective reality. Subjectively we are able to deny death and maintain the fiction of our own immortality or of the continued existence, in some form, of significant others who have died. However, as this subjective reality is externalized and objectified during the course of social interaction, problems arise; contradictions begin to appear … An individual who subjectively maintains a religious perspective, in which the death of a particular significant other is denied, is confronted with an objective reality in which the other members of his society, who are still alive and who have not been so powerfully affected by the death, adopt a common-sense perspective towards death and are able to accept it. The contradiction between the religious perspective and the common-sense perspective, between subjective reality and objective reality, between the denial and acceptance of death, can never be fully resolved. As far as our experience of death is concerned, the movement between these two perspectives will always be hampered by this contradiction. This results in an ambivalent attitude toward death, one in which we can neither accept nor deny it fully.
Death-related rites and rituals and discourses on death employ every available means in their attempts to invalidate the inherently human contradiction. In the case of the Greeks, these attempts are particularly elaborate discourses on death which make the most out of ritual patterns and poetics.
The popular, orally-transmitted moirologia eloquently articulate the contradictions between life and death, between culture and nature. They emphasize the theme of irreplaceable loss and separation, also evident in the motifs of marriage and journeying employed, and the theme of the natural cycle of birth and death, the return to nature, all complemented by powerful antithetical images and creative metaphors. These images and metaphors contrast food and its absence (even the corpse becomes earth’s food); water is contrasted to the thirst of the deceased; light in life is contrasted to darkness in death; the season of spring, when all of nature is in bloom, is contrasted to wintertime, when all in nature dies, and to the harvest (as Charon reaps human-crops). [17] They allude also to evergreen plants and trees (especially the cypress), to birds (because they cross the boundaries of the upper and lower worlds more easily and swiftly), and to other animals as well. [18]
These motifs, themes, and metaphors may be compared and contrasted with analogous ones found in ancient Greek laments and discourses on death. The fact that the laments exhibit what has been called the Homeric view of death has led Alexiou to discuss the B1-text on the lamella from Petelia, Italy, in her concluding section on water and thirst; specifically, she associates the B1-text’s motifs of the spring of Lethe and Mnemosyne, of the cypress, and of the deceased’s thirstiness with those encountered in the moirologia. [19] Though the motifs may be identical, however, their different contexts, ancient and modern, invest them with entirely different symbolism and meanings. The collections of moirologia lack any suggestions of the Orphic view of life after death [20] which is evident in the texts of the gold lamellae and epistomia. The motifs are therefore employed in the moirologia in order to create powerful images of the absence of life after death and the unnatural status of the dead. A few examples suffice to reveal the diametrically different associations which the themes, motifs, and metaphors of the lamellae and epistomia acquire in moirologia. The cypress exhibits an ambiguous eschatology in Homer, but in the lamellae it serves clearly as an eschatological place-marker near two springs/lakes; [21] in the moirologia, by contrast, it is employed either in metaphor (the deceased is likened to the tree) or as a marker for water in general, near the entrance to Paradise. [22] While in both cases the cypress represents a limen, actual or metaphorical, the new status awaiting the deceased in each case is markedly different. Likewise, the thirst-motif in the lamellae is meant to emphasize the choice the mystes faces as he decides which spring/lake to drink from, a choice which will affect his future condition in Hades; in the moirologia, however, thirstiness only accentuates the unnatural state of the dead, who do not drink and are not instructed to do so, because in fact they cannot.Moreover, Alexiou admits that the forgetfulness-and-memory motif of the texts on the lamellae has no convincing parallels in the moirologia, as the living are rather encouraged in the laments to remember the dead and not forget them. [23] In the lamellae, on the other hand, the motif belongs exclusively to the dead, who must remember which of two springs/lakes to drink from in order to be reborn. Alexiou’s concluding remarks that these motifs are intertwined and reflective of ancient eschatological beliefs [24] thus require modification.
The absence in the moirologia of an Orphic view of life after death is not at all surprising, if other discourses on death are brought into the picture. The Eastern Orthodox Church Requiem par excellence, a very important text that has not received due attention, may fill in this gap. [25] It is composed of parts in narrative form, solos, and choral chants, through which the central dogma, the resurrection of the dead, is communicated. This dogma is summarized in the verse of the Creed: “I await the resurrection of the dead” (προσδοκῶ ἀνάστασιν νεκρῶν), a verse more often than not inscribed on tombstones as the deceased’s own proclamation. Thus the deceased implies that s/he has not really died, but ‘lives’ in this liminal state until the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment, a view analogous to the ancient Orphic view of death. These analogies, however, are shown to be limited and superficial when the motifs, themes, and symbols are studied within their contexts. After all, with the gold lamellae and epistomia, the deceased is immediately reborn into a new, heroic, if not outright divine, existence, but s/he remains forever in the Underworld, just like Hades, and is not transferred to Olympos, the other divine dwelling.
The ritual ceremony of a funeral in the Eastern Orthodox Church is divided into three stages. [26] The first takes place in the house of the deceased person, where the priest arrives to escort the deceased to the church; the second is the performance of the Requiem inside the church; and the final one occurs over the grave in the cemetery. In the first and the last stages, i.e., at the house before the formation of the funeral procession and at the grave where the procession ends, the priest performs the small Requiem, called τρισάγιον (“thrice-holy”), for the deceased, always mentioned only by her/his first name. The trisagion is also chanted over the grave after a three–, nine– and forty-day period, after a year, and after three years, or whenever the relatives visit the grave and ask the priest literally to “throw ‘down’ a trisagion” (να ρίξει ένα τρισάγιο), i.e., chant while looking downwards at the grave from within which the deceased ‘may be listening.’ At the intervals of forty days, a year, and three years, a Memorial Service is held inside the church, comprising the trisagion together with a number of benedictory chants (εὐλογητάρια) that are also chanted during the Requiem.
The trisagion begins and ends the funerary procession and thus frames the main Requiem ceremony held inside the church. It is composed of several steps: 1) The priest chants for the repose and protection of the deceased’s soul in God’s blessed life (φυλάττων … εἰς τὴν μακαρίαν ζωὴν τὴν παρά σοι φιλάνθρωπε); for its repose among the righteous souls (μετὰ πνευμάτων δικαίων) that have already died; and for its repose in the place where are all those deceased who are Holy (ὅπου πάντες οἱ Ἅγιοί σου ἀναπαύονται). For God alone is immortal (ὅτι μόνος ὑπάρχεις ἀθάνατος), and it is God who went down to Hades and released the sorrows that were binding humans (Σὺ εἶ ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν, ὁ καταβὰς εἰς Ἅιδην, καὶ τὰς ὀδύνας λύσας τῶν πεπεδημένων); finally, the Virgin Mary is invoked to intercede on behalf of the deceased. 2) The congregation answers the priest’s prayers in narrative form for the repose of the deceased’s soul and for the forgiveness of her/his sins, the last one of which states:
ὁ Θεὸς τῶν πνευμάτων καὶ πάσης σαρκός, ὁ τὸν θάνατον καταπατήσας, τὸν δὲ διάβολον καταργήσας, καὶ ζωὴν τῷ κόσμῳ σου δωρησάμενος· αὐτός, Κύριε, ἀνάπαυσον τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ/τῆς … ἐν τόπῳ φωτεινῷ, ἐν τόπῳ χλοερῷ, ἐν τόπῳ ἀναψύξεως, ἔνθα ἀπέδρα πᾶσα ὀδύνη, λύπη καὶ στεναγμός … ὅτι σὺ εἶ ἡ ἀνάστασις, ἡ ζωή, καὶ ἡ ἀνάπαυσις τοῦ κεκοιμημένου δούλου σου … Χριστὲ ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν …
God of spirits and of all flesh, who trampled upon death and annulled the devil and offered life to your world, You Lord place the deceased in a place of light, in a verdant place, in a place of refreshing cold, where there is no pain, sorrow, and groaning … You, Christ our God, are the resurrection, the life, and the repose of your deceased servant …
3) At the conclusion of the trisagion, the priest invokes Christ once more: “our true God, Υou have the power over both the living and the dead, because Υou are the eternal king and Υou resurrected from the dead” (ὁ καὶ νεκρῶν καὶ ζώντων τὴν ἐξουσίαν ἔχων ὡς ἀθάνατος βασιλεύς, καὶ ἀναστὰς ἐκ νεκρῶν, Χριστὸς ὁ ἀληθινὸς Θεὸς ἡμῶν …) and concludes with the prayer: “may your memory be eternal, our blessed and unforgettable brother/sister” (αἰωνία σου ἡ μνήμη, ἀξιομακάριστε καὶ ἀείμνηστε ἀδελφὲ/-ὴ ἡμῶν).
Once the trisagion is over, the funeral procession is formed and reaches the church inside which the Requiem is performed. It is more elaborate than the trisagion, but contains the same mix of narrative and chant, in which the same motifs, images, and symbols are further amplified. Portions of Psalm 118 are chanted in three different modes of Byzantine music. At the end of each, the priest offers prayers for the repose of the deceased, and he does the same at the intervals between the benedictory chants (εὐλογητάρια). Three of these are chanted on behalf of the deceased (with the deceased as persona loquens) and the other three on behalf of the congregation. The first is as follows:
τῶν Ἁγίων ὁ χορὸς εὗρε πηγὴν τῆς ζωῆς καὶ θύραν Παραδείσου· εὕρω κἀγὼ τὴν ὁδὸν διὰ τῆς μετανοίας· τὸ ἀπολωλὸς πρόβατον ἐγώ εἰμι· ἀνακάλεσαί με, Σωτήρ, καὶ σῶσόν με.
The choir of the Saints has found the spring of life and the gate to Paradise; and I have found the way through repentance; I am the lost sheep, Savior, recall me and save me.
In the following benedictory chants, the deceased acknowledges how s/he was brought to life by God’s hand and image and is now returning back to the earth from which s/he was taken, praying for a return to God’s homoiosis, so that the ancient beauty may be reclaimed. These abstractions receive further elaboration. After praying to God the Lord and Compassionate for pity and cleansing, the deceased asks to be given her/his much-desired place and to be made again a citizen of Paradise. On behalf of the deceased, the congregation chants for her/his repose and placement in Paradise, where the choirs of the Saints and the Righteous will shine forth like leading lights (ἐκλάμψουσιν ὡς φωστῆρες). They proclaim their faith and pray to Mary, through whom they discovered Paradise, because she gave birth to Christ. Finally, they conclude: Christ, place the soul of your servant among the Saints, where there is no pain, no sorrow, no groaning, but life without end (ζωὴ ἀτελεύτητος).
The atmosphere and context created by these chants and prayers is not as poignant and gloomy as in the moirologia. Instead, the motifs and themes of the Requiem are so far developed in a manner analogous, but not comparable, to the Orphic view about life after death as exhibited in the texts on the lamellae and epistomia: anticipation of eternal life in Paradise among the Saints and the Righteous, in a verdant place, full of light and refreshingly cold. Strictly speaking, however, nowhere in the Requiem is the deceased called a Saint or one of the Righteous, because such a designation must await the final judgment at Christ’s Second Coming.
Things change dramatically, however, in the next section of the Requiem, when hymns called idiomela, “with their own melody,” are chanted in all eight modes of Byzantine music. It is not only the change of musical modes (a phenomenon acoustically evocative and impressive in itself) but the themes touched upon and commented upon in each hymn that are surprising and unexpected, given what has been heard so far. Significantly, all hymns (thirteen in all, but seldom all chanted) conclude with the same theme: a prayer to Christ philanthropos, who has called back the deceased, for her/his repose among the Saints and the Righteous, in the place which is the home of all who are jubilant (ἔνθα πάντων ἐστὶν εὐφραινομένων ἡ κατοικία), in the blessedness that never grows old (ἐν τῇ ἀγήρῳ μακαριότητι), in the land of the living (ἐν χώρᾳ ζώντων).
The beginnings of these hymns employ motifs and especially themes that one would usually encounter in the moirologia and in the Homeric view of death. Although cumbersome, it is worthwhile summarizing the themes elaborated in this part of the Requiem (paragraphs indicate the beginning of a new hymn and the change of musical mode):
Nothing in life remains without pain; there is no eternal glory; all is weaker than shadows and more deceiving than dreams; death is the end of everything.
Humans wither like flowers, pass by like a dream, and dissolve; when the trumpet blows just as in a self-inflicted earthquake, all dead will be resurrected and hasten to meet Christ for the final judgment.
Oimoi, the soul in tears is struggling to depart from the body and there is no one compassionate around; the soul looks to and begs the Angels to no avail, stretches its hands to humans and no one helps; life is short.
All human things that do not exist after death are futile; money and fame/glory are obliterated.
The mystery of death is indeed the most horrendous; how by God’s will the soul is violently separated from the body and its harmony is ruptured and the most natural bonding of coalescence (συμφυΐα) is severed!
Where are the endeavors of humanity, where is the fantasy of short-lived things, where is gold and silver, where are the flood and turmoil of suppliants? All is dust, all is ashes, all is shadows.
I remembered the prophet who said, I am earth and ashes (ἐμνήσθην τοῦ προφήτου βοῶντος· Ἐγώ εἰμι γῆ καὶ σποδός); and then I went to the graves, saw the naked bones, and wondered: who is he, a king or a soldier, a rich man or a poor man, a righteous man or a sinner?
My beginning and my hypostasis was Your command and You have created me from invisible and visible nature, my body from earth, my soul from your divine and life-giving afflatus.
I mourn and lament (θρηνῶ καὶ ὀδύρομαι) when I realize death and see lying in the grave the beauty created for us according to God’s image, amorphous, inglorious, without form; what a miracle, what a mysterious thing is happening to us, how did we surrender to decay, how were we conjugated to death?
Your death o Lord brought about immortality (πρόξενος ἀθανασίας); for if You were not placed in a tomb, Paradise would have never been opened.
Mother of our God, hagne Virgin, gate of Logos, intercede for the soul of the deceased to be pitied.
This part of the Requiem (and the following section called μακαρισμοί, “Beatitudes,” not always chanted) is usually referred to as the Church’s official threnos for the deceased, and people call it, not unjustly, the Church’s moirologia. The threnodic posture is emphasized in the beginning of two of the hymns by the use of οἴμοι and the expression θρηνῶ καὶ ὀδύρομαι. More importantly, however, all of the motifs and themes of the moirologia, employed in the composition of these benedictory hymns and beatitudes, generate a very gloomy and poignant context. A Homeric view of death and afterlife is self-evident as their themes and ideas are reminiscent of the archaic epic and lyric poetry, the Iliad, Archilochos, Mimnermos, Solon, Simonides, and Pindar. But there is a striking and momentous development in the new context: they all conclude, in spite of all this horror and gloom, with a petition for the deceased’s soul to be assigned a special place in the land of the living.
The mood of the Requiem changes again momentarily as what is heard emphasizes life after death: the road you (sc. the deceased) are walking today is blessed, because a place of rest has been prepared for you (μακαρία ἡ ὁδός, ᾗ πορεύει σήμερον, ὅτι ἡτοιμάσθη σοι τόπος ἀναπαύσεως). Two passages are read from Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians (4.13–17) and from the Gospel of John (5.24–30) and more prayers are offered, as in the trisagion quoted above. At the close of the Requiem, when hymns are chanted in the most affecting modes of Byzantine music, the motifs and themes harken back to those in the Requiem’s middle section, its threnos. Three of these final hymns are chanted on behalf of the congregation, and one very moving—and therefore seldom chanted—hymn on behalf of the deceased (s/he is the persona loquens describing what has happened and where s/he is going). They exhort the congregation to mourn, pay its last respects, and kiss the deceased for the last time, as this is the moment of final and irrevocable separation. While these are chanted and the congregation acts accordingly, the Requiem draws to a close and the procession towards the grave is formed.
Over the grave, the priest again performs the trisagion, the coffin is lowered into the grave, and the priest sprinkles the deceased with oil and wine, making the symbol of the cross and reciting verse 9 from Psalm 50: “sprinkle me with hyssop and I will be cleansed, wash me and I will be more white/bright than snow” (ραντιεῖς με ὑσσώπῳ, καὶ καθαρισθήσομαι, πλυνεῖς με, καὶ ὑπὲρ χιόνα λευκανθήσομαι). He then picks up earth from the ground, spits in it, and sprinkles the deceased with it, again making the symbol of the cross and saying: “the earth of the Lord and its fulfillment, the oikoumene and all who dwell in it; you are earth and you will depart to earth” (τοῦ Κυρίου ἡ γῆ καὶ τὸ πλήρωμα αὐτῆς, ἡ οἰκουμένη καὶ πάντες οἱ κατοικοῦντες ἐν αὐτῇ. Γῆ εἶ καὶ εἰς γῆν ἀπελεύσει). These last words appear to be an abbreviation of a longer version found in the funeral service for monks on Mount Athos (Paisios 1935:57): “yawning earth welcome him who was made of you by the hand of God; he is returning to you who bore him; for God welcomed what was according to his image, you welcome what is your own” (γῆ χανοῦσα ὑπόδεξαι τὸν ἀπὸ σοῦ πλασθέντα, χειρὶ Θεοῦ τὸ πρότερον· πάλιν δὲ ὑποστρέφοντα πρὸς σὲ τὴν τεκοῦσαν· τὸ γὰρ κατ᾽ εἰκόνα ὁ κτίστης προσελάβετο, σὺ δὲ ὑπόδεξαι τὸ ἴδιον). In some areas of Greece, those present also throw earth or flowers, and the priest or one of the relatives places the tile or ostrakon on the mouth or the chest of the deceased, painted or inscribed with a cross or the inscription Ἰ(ησοῦ)Σ Χ(ριστὸ)Σ νικᾷ (Figures 19–23 [pages 44–47, 49, 51]). Those present then wash their hands, have some bread, drinks (water and cognac), and kollyva (boiled wheat sometimes with nuts, almonds, pomegranate seeds, raisins, sugar, etc.). [27] The closest relatives return to the deceased’s house for a simple meal, called μακαρία (“blessed”) or παρηγοριά (“comforting, consoling”), which promotes a quid pro quo relationship: the meal is offered so that the relatives will comfort the family members and offer best wishes for them and the deceased: “may God forgive her/him” (Θεὸς σχωρέσ᾽ την/τον), “may her/his memory be eternal” (αἰωνία της/του ἡ μνήμη), “may you live and remember her/him” (νὰ ζήσεις νὰ τὴν/τὸν θυμᾶσαι).
This long but necessary digression on the Eastern Orthodox funeral ceremony, instituted for the burial of its members, reveals a very elaborate discourse on death involving ritual, music, and poetics. By its motifs and themes, it appears to share beliefs and practices with the Homeric and the Orphic discourses on death and the afterlife, but it also, of course, exhibits differences. Necessary changes are visible in the custom of the epistomia, as examples nos. 18–25 above indicate. The material is clay, symbolizing literally and figuratively the priest’s final words, as more than once in the Requiem gold, silver, and all riches are declared meaningless after death, whereas the gold lamellae and epistomia were meant to symbolize literally and figuratively the golden life after death. The cypress and the refreshingly cold place stand out among the motifs and themes, but so does a gloomy outlook on the afterlife as elaborated in epic and archaic poetry. Albrecht Dieterich long ago noted the coincidence of the psyxis, [28] but in the Orthodox Requiem, it refers to the place and not the water. Whereas the cypress and the cold water are intimately linked in the texts on the lamellae as markers (either topographically or for Mnemosyne), in the Requiem the refreshing cold describes a place, and in the moirologia the cypress is either a limen or a metaphor for the appearance of the dead. Moreover, whereas in antiquity, according to the opinio communis, the Homeric view was the public and official one and the Orphic the private and unofficial, the Orthodox Requiem is the official and public discourse on death whereas the moirologia occupy the private, more personal sphere. All of these elements, however, are invested with a new and completely different symbolism within their new ritual context, the Orthodox discourse on death and the afterlife.
In that respect, the benedictory hymns, the beatitudes, and the hymns at the end of the Requiem are quite revealing. In the beginning of each hymn, various aspects of human helplessness in the face of death are highlighted and presented in a very realistic and repugnant manner, as if they were didactic attempts to teach a hard lesson to the congregation and the deceased, who are ‘chanting’ and ‘entering in dialogue’ with one another and with God. At each hymn’s conclusion, the only recourse left to human helplessness is Christ and the resurrection of the dead, an option that somewhat mitigates the horrific mood. Thus the motifs and themes, evident also in the moirologia, which may be characterized as the Homeric view of death, are rearticulated and recontextualized in a new Orthodox frame of reference, and acquire new and completely different meanings and symbolism. They become the human and the official perspective on death, characterized by limited capacity and knowledge, and within their new context are undermined and proven wrong, or at least proven only partially true. The threnodic posture in the Requiem is as gloomy and hopeless as that found in moirologia, whose inherent danger is thus disarmed, at least temporarily. This extraordinary dialogue between the Requiem and the moirologia within the Orthodox ritual context in a sense attempts, if not to eliminate the private and unofficial threnos, the moirologia (an attempt almost impossible), at least to appropriate them, ‘expose’ their limitations and dead-endedness, and to check and channel their unsettling portrayal of death into more restrained, comforting, and especially less threatening avenues.
Discourses on death have a long and fascinating history and will continue to intrigue us because they represent human nature par excellence. In most cases, human perceptions and attitudes towards death and the ritual and poetic discourses created thereby concern the living and their endless struggle to come to terms with this most profound fact of life. The Greek case, in very different historical periods, has produced challenging discourses on death: the Homeric, the Orphic, the moirologia, the Orthodox Requiem. As Kostis Papagiorgis eloquently put it: “humans had a hunch how to die and why to die, [but] now any relation to this fact is lost.” [29] Each of them grapples creatively and dynamically with the most elemental question of humanity: the mystery of death, or rather the mystery of life and its values. The Byzantine and modern Greek examples of clay epistomia are comparable to the gold epistomia and lamellae of ancient mystery cult(s) and ritual(s), but only in a superficial and trivial manner, as their context is dramatically different. Both discourses, however, employ similar or identical motifs and themes within their distinct contexts, and bear witness to how the same elements may lead to completely different symbolisms and meanings. According to the Homeric discourse, the moirologia, and sections of the Orthodox Requiem, life is worth living, because death is unbearably final. According to the Orphic discourse, an immediate ‘new’ birth and a ‘new’ and blessed life after the deceased’s inhumation or cremation is promised. The discourse of the Eastern Orthodox Requiem is neither Homeric, nor Orphic, nor like that of the moirologia, in spite of the apparent attempt at mediation between them. The motifs and themes acquire new meaning and symbolism, they are sanctioned by official authority, and they pronounce a new alternative: new life in Christ and a paradisiac repose, which however must await Christ’s Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment.
These Greek discourses on death, their rituals, and their poetics evince significant endeavors to come to grips with death. Even if human life and human death will always remain in irresolvable opposition, and even if all attempts at mediation between life and death eventually fail, the Greeks hold a prominent place among human cultures for doing their part in confronting the issue in their own hallmark way: performing poetics, rituals, and discourses that earn paradise.


[ back ] 1. Internet websites for the burial of Pope John Paul II on April 8, 2005:;
[ back ] 2. Yatromanolakis and Roilos 2003 and 3nn5–6.
[ back ] 3. For the term, 3nn5–6. Guthrie (1993:261–271) concludes his study with the vexing issue of Orphism and Christianity; compare Zizioulas’ (2003) and Stroumsa’s (forthcoming) convincing arguments for the mutual influences and interconnections and the dynamic interaction between Judaism, Hellenism, and Christianity from the second century BCE until the early third century CE. That borrowings may be detected does not imply that the symbolism and discourse were also borrowed; on the contrary, dynamic interaction may lead to new discourses. For peculiar analogies with early Christianity and Gnostics, see Betz forthcoming.
[ back ] 4. Politis (1931), Sygkollitis (1934), and Megas (1940:166–205) are the basic works for modern Greek burial rites and customs, which are elaborated by Danforth (1982), Anagnostopoulos (1984), Alexiou (2002), and Antzoulatou-Retsila (2004).
[ back ] 5. Politis 1931:330–333.
[ back ] 6. Sygkollitis 1934:401–402 (tile), 392 (coins and silverware); Megas 1940:178, 183–184; Danforth 1982:40; Alexiou 2002:99 (tile), 72 and 91 (coin). Danforth and Alexiou mention only coins, but Antzoulatou-Retsila (2004:145–152) records various other ‘gifts,’ as I also personally witnessed in villages of Western Macedonia. It is also customary in the burial of clergy to place the book of Psalms on the chest of the deceased. For modern Greek beliefs in the magic qualities of metals, see Papamichael 1962–1963.
[ back ] 7. Information kindly provided by Giorgos Diakonikolaou; see also Politis 1931:336n4.
[ back ] 8. Antzoulatou-Retsila 2004:133.
[ back ] 9. Alexiou 2002:106–108. For a theological perspective of Hellenism, Judaism, and Christianity, see Zizioulas 2003; and Paraskevaidis 2005.
[ back ] 10. Alexiou 2002:221–322 and 326–327.
[ back ] 11. Danforth 1982:32.
[ back ] 12. Anagnostopoulos (1984:320–347) discusses the liminal state of the deceased.
[ back ] 13. Danforth 1982:71–115.
[ back ] 14. Danforth 1982:117–152.
[ back ] 15. Compare Psychogiou (2003) on the crucial role of women as intermediaries between the living and the dead, exemplified in the preparation of the boiled wheat.
[ back ] 16. Danforth 1982:32.
[ back ] 17. Information kindly provided at Chania by Christoforos Sklavenitis about moirologia on the island of Leukas that refer to departure.
[ back ] 18. Alexiou 2002:298–321; Danforth 1982:71–115.
[ back ] 19. Alexiou 2002:323–326.
[ back ] 20. Saunier (1999) is the most accessible and offers a complete overview of moirologia drawn from previous collections (Fauriel 1999:301–302 was able to discover only two brief moirologia); see also Politis 1932. The south-central Peloponnese, Mani, Tsakona, and Sparta, have been studied more than other areas (Passagianis 1928, Seremetakis 1994, and Katsoulakos 2001); on moirologia as social protest Caraveli 1986 and 159n26. For Cretan mantinades on the subject of death see Jeannaraki 2005:142–148; and Tsouderos 2002. Anagnostopoulos (1984) provides a detailed study of the eschatology in surviving popular songs; and Kapsomenos (2000–2001) discusses the ideas on life and death in Cretan popular songs.
[ back ] 21. See above the section “The Cretan Texts in the Context of a Ritual and a Hieros Logos” and 112nn47–48, 113nn51–52, 114n54.
[ back ] 22. Antzoulatou-Retsila 2004:206; on the Underworld topography and the existence of the deceased there as depicted in popular songs see Anagnostopoulos 1984:269–319.
[ back ] 23. Alexiou 2002:324–325. On forgetfulness in moirologia, see Saunier 1999:111–135.
[ back ] 24. Alexiou 2002:326.
[ back ] 25. I am using the official text of the Greek Orthodox Church (Νεκρώσιμοι καὶ ἐπιμνημόσυνοι ἀκολουθίαι). Unlike Danforth (1982), Alexiou (2002) gives the impression that she avoids references to this text, perhaps because of its uncertain date, although some of its parts and its music are believed to be compositions of John from Damascus, and although numerous other liturgical texts are employed throughout (compare also Alexiou 2004); see further Anagnostopoulos 1984.
[ back ] 26. See Politis 1931; Sygkollitis 1934; Danforth 1982; Alexiou 2002. Bloom (2006) discusses the modern fear of death and loss, which in the early period of Christianity was assuaged by the most common prayer and exchange among them: “remember death” (sc. ἔχε) μνήμη θανάτου.
[ back ] 27. For an eloquent discussion of the intimate relation of moirologia and kollyva see Psychogiou 2003.
[ back ] 28. Dieterich 1969:94–100.
[ back ] 29. Papagiorgis 1995:115 and passim.